Welcome to Childhood Made Crazy, an interview series that takes a critical look at the current “mental disorders of childhood” model. This series is comprised of interviews with practitioners, parents, and other children’s advocates as well as pieces that investigate fundamental questions in the mental health field. Visit the following page to learn more about the series, to see which interviews are coming, and to learn about the topics under discussion:
Dan Stradford founded the mental health nonprofit Safe Harbor in 1998 and serves as its president. He is also a successful businessman, the author of the book The Men's Code of Honor: 66 Principles That Make a Man and he is lead author of a guide for physicians, Complementary and Alternative Medicine Treatments in Psychiatry, downloaded more than 30,000 times. He has published more than 250 articles and technical papers.
EM: How would you suggest a parent think about being told that his or her child meets the criteria for a mental disorder or a mental illness diagnosis?
DS: Assigning a child a mental diagnosis is a very serious matter and, like giving a child psychiatric medication, should only be done as a last resort when all other explanations or approaches have been exhausted.
I was born in 1954 and grew up in an era when there were no childhood psychiatric diagnoses. Kids were called rambunctious, shy, troublemakers, or whatever, but the typical tools for addressing their issues were good parenting, loving discipline, healthy habits, good schooling, (for many) religious training, plenty of play in the outdoors and regular social interaction.
In the 1970s many of the ordinary traits of some children became medicalized as psychiatric diagnoses, the most famous being ADD or ADHD. The treatment was primarily medication. After years of treating millions of children for these diagnoses, scientific studies now find that many are simply lacking in the “typical tools” I mentioned above – healthy habits, loving discipline, etc. About 20% of ADHD kids, for example, are found to have sleep issues. Many others don’t eat well or come from broken families. Exposure to greenery has been found to dramatically reduce ADHD symptoms. Etc., etc. It has even been found that fidgeting and restless behavior – classic signs of ADHD – are valuable learning tools for some children and they do not learn as well if they can’t fidget or be restless.
So before assigning a child a diagnosis, get another opinion, from another doctor or even from someone in the “alternative” field like a naturopath. Or research your options online. In rare cases, a child may truly need medication or a psychiatric diagnosis may be in order, but once you start down the road of labeling a child or medicating them, it can be hard to unring that bell. I have seen numerous cases of a medication making a child worse which was dealt with by prescribing stronger meds followed by worse symptoms, etc., etc.
We love our children. If in doubt about whether to treat, research more until you feel you are doing right by them.
EM: How would you suggest a parent think about being told that his or her child ought to go on one or more than one psychiatric medication for his or her diagnosed mental disorder or mental illness?
DS: First of all, recognize that these days there are many approaches to treating emotional and behavioral problems. Just try Googling “alternative treatments depression,” for example, and you’ll see the cornucopia of options.
Secondly, it is important to understand that medical doctors, particularly psychiatrists, are taught to view a child’s behaviors through their training. That training involves a checklist of symptoms and if your child has seven or more out of twenty, for example, the doctor knows to give the child the diagnosis that fits that checklist. The treatment is usually meds. Just remember, there are many other ways to look at the situation and your doctor’s way is only one.
And also remember that the medical school he/she went to was likely heavily funded by pharmaceutical companies or the doctor gets lots of benefits from these drug companies and that could bias his/her thinking. Also, realize these same drug companies teach lots of teachers and school nurses and school districts about their meds for children and the symptoms to look for because they have found this increases drug sales.
Third, so much of normal behavior has been turned into a psychiatric diagnosis – sadness, anxiety, high energy, etc. Consider the possibility that your child’s behaviors or actions may be normal for him/her or he/she may grow out of them. Or perhaps a change of habits, environment, diet, exercise, less TV, etc. is a better alternative.
Of course, in severe cases medication may be the only answer. If no other options are left, it must be considered.
EM: What if a parent currently has a child in treatment for a mental disorder? How should he or she monitor the treatment regimen and/or communicate with mental health professionals involved?
DS: When I founded our nonprofit Safe Harbor in 1998 and started our web site, www.AlternativeMentalHealth.com in the year 2000, I was stunned to discover that an entire industry had sprung up in the alternative medicine field for getting children off of psychiatric medication.
The typical cycle was that a school pressured the parents to put the child on meds for ADHD, the child had bad reactions to the meds, worse behavior, or they simply didn’t help, and the parents were afraid to abruptly take the child off the meds.
As a result, parents turned to alternative doctors, chiropractors, nutritionists, psychologists and other practitioners who then became adept over time at transitioning kids off of meds and finding better solutions.
If you have a child on medication and you don’t want that to continue, chances are you will not get much encouragement from the doctor who started the child on the meds, unless the child obviously no longer “needs” the drug. Typically, doctors who prescribe believe the child needs to stay on the med. If you get a lot of resistance from your doctor, find an alternative practitioner who will help you. There are many around, even MDs.
If you have a child on a med but are unsure whether it is safe, simply use common sense and your own eyes and ears. If your child is sleeping too long, showing emotional distress or numbness, having a lack of appetite, etc., don’t brush it off as a necessary evil. Perhaps the dose can be reduced or, again, you may want to look for an alternative advisor or practitioner.
EM: What if a parent has a child who is taking psychiatric drugs and the child appears to be having adverse effects to those drugs or whose situation appears to worsening? What would you suggest the parent do?
DS: If a kid is worsening or showing adverse reactions to meds, consult with the prescribing physician. She may know what the problem is and address it. However, if you are being told that the problem is really your child or the adverse effects are “normal,” get another opinion, from an alternative practitioner if needed.
I recall the story of a woman in a pro-psychiatry book whose daughter was put on meds for ADHD at age 13. Within a year, the girl attempted suicide so was put on stronger meds. After another year, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was put on stronger meds. She was still on meds in her 20s. “Thank God,” the mother wrote, “we started treating her in time.” I saw this quite differently because I have heard from so many parents and patients who were worsened by meds and were prescribed more meds as a solution. This approach has taken many people into an unnecessary hell that took years to return from.
If your kid is having a bad reaction to meds, get another opinion, again preferably from a doctor with a different point of view. It is certainly possible that your child is one of those rare ones for whom meds are necessary, even if they have some side effects. But don’t assume that without exhausting your options.
EM: What would you like to say to a parent whose child is in difficulty and who would like to put her trust in the current mental health system?
DS: The modern practice of diagnosing deviations from “normalcy” in children is fraught with perils. In my experience, the mental health system and psychiatrists in general are very quick to label children and seem to understand little about what makes a happy, healthy kid.
First, children are incredibly varied. They are, after all, small people. Their brains work differently than adults because they haven’t grown all the connections and features of the adult brain. Just recently a study found that tests to diagnose “depression” in kids don’t work – because kids do not respond as adults. Additionally, kids in our modern world are exposed to tons of TV and electronic gadgets that keep them sedentary indoors. Single-parent homes and fast food are common. Food additives and sugar are abundant.
Many, many things can make a kid “act up” or behave badly. I mentioned traditional basic tools for kids in the first few paragraphs above: good parenting, loving discipline, healthy habits, good schooling, (for many) religious training, plenty of play in the outdoors and regular social interaction.
Another wonderful tool is the Walsh Protocols. A high percentage of kids labeled with behavioral problems will test positive on the lab tests recommended by William Walsh, Ph.D. Targeted nutrient treatment can do wonders for these kids (and adults, too!). Practitioner can be found on the site of the nonprofit Walsh Research Institute under “Clinical Resources” (www.walshinstitute.org).
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